What Does The Bible Say To Christians About Their Approach To Racism?
To be completely transparent with you, writing this feels…strange. Presenting a case for being antiracist, from the bible, feels like trying to find a case for being alive from the bible. It’s not something that you would ever think needs to be justified or encouraged, it just seems like it should be the default state of existence. But the need to justify this to so many who claim the name of Christ shows how deeply entrenched racism and white supremacy is within our society and systems.
To begin, it’s important to define what racism is, what antiracism is, and how they function. For that, I turn to renowned author and racial justice thought leader Ibram X Kendi who says,
“To be an antiracist is to set lucid definitions of racism/antiracism, racist/antiracist policies, racist/antiracist ideas, racist/antiracist people. To be a racist is to constantly redefine racist in a way that exonerates one’s changing policies, ideas, and personhood.
So let’s set some definitions. What is racism? Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas that produces and normalizes racial inequities. Okay, so what are racist policies and ideas? We have to define them separately to understand why they are married and why they interact so well together. In fact, let’s take one step back and consider the definition of another important phrase: racial inequity.
Racial inequity is when two or more racial groups are not standing on approximately equal footing. Here’s an example of racial inequity: 71 percent of White families lived in owner-occupied homes in 2014, compared to 45 percent of Latinx families and 41 percent of Black families. Racial equity is when two or more racial groups are standing on a relatively equal footing. An example of racial equity would be if there were relatively equitable percentages of all three racial groups living in owner-occupied homes in the forties, seventies or, better, nineties.
A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups. By policy, I mean written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people. There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or “sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.
Racist policies have been described by other terms: “institutional racism,” “structural racism,” and “systemic racism,” for instance. But those are vaguer terms than “racist policy.” When I use them I find myself having to immediately explain what they mean. “Racist policy” is more tangible and exacting, and more likely to be immediately understood by people, including its victims, who may not have the benefit of extensive fluency in racial terms. “Racist policy” says exactly what the problem is and where the problem is. “Institutional racism” and “structural racism” and “systemic racism” are redundant. Racism itself is institutional, structural, and systemic.
“Racist policy” also cuts to the core of racism better than “racial discrimination,” another common phrase. “Racial discrimination” is an immediate and visible manifestation of an underlying racial policy. When someone discriminates against a person in a “racial group, they are carrying out a policy or taking advantage of the lack of a protective policy. We all have the power to discriminate. Only an exclusive few have the power to make policy. Focusing on “racial discrimination” takes our eyes off the central agents of racism: racist policy and racist policymakers, or what I call racist power.
Since the 1960s, racist power has commandeered the term “racial discrimination,” transforming the act of discriminating on the basis of race into an inherently racist act. But if racial discrimination is defined as treating, considering, or making a distinction in favor or against an individual based on that person’s race, then racial discrimination is not inherently racist. The defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity. If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist. Someone reproducing inequity through permanently assisting an overrepresented racial group into wealth and power is entirely different than someone challenging that inequity by temporarily assisting an underrepresented racial group into relative wealth and power until equity is reached.
The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination. As President Lyndon B. Johnson said in 1965, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in 1978, “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.”
The racist champions of racist discrimination engineered to maintain racial inequities before the 1960s are now the racist “opponents of antiracist discrimination engineered to dismantle those racial inequities. The most threatening racist movement is not the alt-right’s unlikely drive for a White ethnostate but the regular American’s drive for a “race-neutral” one. The construct of race neutrality actually feeds White nationalist victimhood by positing the notion that any policy protecting or advancing non-White Americans toward equity is “reverse discrimination.”
That is how racist power can call affirmative action policies that succeed in reducing racial inequities “race conscious” and standardized tests that produce racial inequities “race neutral.” That is how they can blame the behavior of entire racial groups for the inequities between different racial groups and still say their ideas are “not racist.” But there is no such thing as a not-racist idea, only racist ideas and antiracist ideas.
So what is a racist idea? A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any “way. Racist ideas argue that the inferiorities and superiorities of racial groups explain racial inequities in society. As Thomas Jefferson suspected a decade after declaring White American independence: “The blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”
An antiracist idea is any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences—that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group. Antiracist ideas argue that racist policies are the cause of racial inequities.
Understanding the differences between racist policies and antiracist policies, between racist ideas and antiracist ideas, allows us to return to our fundamental definitions. Racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas. Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.”
I know that’s a lot to drop on you all at once but unless we address those definitions and terms right up front then there can be no way to make sure we’re all taking away the same things from the conversation we’re having here.
So, what Kendi is saying is that we all fall into one of three categories: actively racist, passively racist, or actively antiracist. I imagine the majority of you reading this will feel that you’re definitely not actively racist because you don’t actively attack people of colour. If you do find yourself in that category, I’ll address you later. But I’d wager most of you start to get a bit more nervous, maybe a bit more defensive even, as you consider whether you fall into the passive racist or active antiracist category.
Because you might have spoken up once when you heard a white person call a person of colour a derogatory term, you may have some close friends who are people of colour, heck you may have even adopted a child of colour! Surely these things mean you can’t possibly be considered passively racist, right? Wrong. The fact is, if we’re not actively working to dismantle racist policies and ideas (or to enact antiracist policies and protections) in our society, then we are part of the problem. In that instance, we are passively racist.
That sounds bad, doesn’t it? But wait, you might think, this guy hasn’t used a single bible verse so far, maybe my saving grace lies in that direction? Well, considering how often the bible has been used to justify oppression and subjugation in the past, it makes sense that might come to mind. But the fact is, anyone who has used the bible to justify slavery or other forms of racism has had to twist scripture pretty intensely to make it work because the Bible is very much in favour of the downtrodden and oppressed which, for hundreds of years now has primarily been people of colour.
For instance, ‘Whoever kidnaps a man, either to sell him or to keep him as a slave, is to be put to death’ Exodus 21:16. That’s a pretty definitive and damning declaration against the way black people were treated for hundreds of years. And we are pushed even further towards racial equity with verses like Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Though many take this last verse and use it to justify the idea that we should ignore race altogether which is an incorrect reading of the text. We shouldn’t read Galations 3:28 and think we’re absolved of all responsibility but rather that we are called to combat any negative discrimination we might encounter about others due to their ethnicity, status, or gender.
God takes this so seriously that we see in Numbers chapter 12, when Moses marries a Cushite woman, his siblings criticise him for marrying what was certainly a black woman; objecting to the colour of her skin. Because of this racism, God strikes Miriam with leprosy. In verse 10, the text even says she, “turned white as snow”. Admittedly the imagery is striking as we see a black skinned woman protected and honoured by God to the point where her racist detractors are struck down with one of the most horrible and dishonourable diseases known to man.
While we are not called to infect every racist we come across with leprosy, we do have a responsibility to stand with the vulnerable and oppressed as evidenced by Zechariah 7:10, Isaiah 1:17, Isaiah 58:6-7, Psalm 82:3-4, and literally hundreds of other verses we could examine. God made all of us, male and female, in his image and to destroy or tear down his image bearers over something as simple as the colour of our skin is about the furthest thing from Christian that you can get.
In short, Christians are called to be a community. And not just one that co-exists despite our differences, but one that thrives precisely because we celebrate those differences and stand with the oppressed and the downtrodden. Which means we must be firmly committed to antiracism and learn what it means to be allies and co-conspirators with our black and brown brothers and sisters in their fight for racial equity.
Anything less simply isn’t Christian.